Using noun phrases to improve your writing
Writing
Using noun phrases to improve your writing

Have you ever wondered why academic English sounds so, well, academic? Your choice of vocabulary and linking words is certainly important, but there's another element to it that we rarely talk about, namely how we organise information within our sentences. When I ask my students what they think, they often say that academic language is complicated and uses long sentences. It’s true that sentences tend to be longer than in everyday English, but ‘complicated’ writing is usually just bad style – and many native speakers of English are guilty of using unnecessary complexity in order to sound impressive.  So today, I want to show you how we create more academic-sounding language without losing control of our sentences by shifting the information into a different place. The magic word is ‘noun phrases’. In academic English we tend to put more information into our subjects and objects and verbs are slightly less important. I read somewhere that ‘is’ is the most common verb in academic writing, and I can definitely believe that’s true. So, while there are some great academic verbs for you to study, our focus is more on creating really strong and specific subjects.  So, let’s look at some examples. Here is a task from IELTS Academic 13 (part of our Authentic Practice Tests):   As part of your answer you may write a sentence like this:  People travel by train because they need to go to work.  This sentence is grammatically correct, which is a great first step, but it doesn’t sound very academic, does it? Let’s ask ourselves this question: Do we really want to talk about ‘people’? The answer is ‘no’, so ‘people’ is a ‘weak’ subject* because it does not draw our reader’s attention to what matters to us. In this sentence, our real focus is ‘go to work or school’. In academic English, we tend to present the idea that really matters, the thing we talk about in the subject (i.e. near the start of the sentence). However, ‘go to work’ cannot be a subject, because it’s a verb construction, and ‘go’ isn’t really a great word choice here. If we look again, we see that we used ‘travel’ in this sentence too, which sounds better than ‘go’. All we have to do now is to ‘disguise’ our verb to make it look like a noun (we use -ing for this) and voilá: We get ‘travelling to work …’. Now let’s run our test again: Do we really want to talk about ‘travelling to work’? Some of us are going to shout “Yes! That’s exactly what I want to talk about” whilst others are going to say, “Mmmmh… I’m not sure”. If you’re in the latter group, keep trying until you find something that works for what you are really trying to say:    Personally, I thought the last one fitted best with what I’m trying to say, so I might create a sentence like this:  Short and middle-distance commuter journeys [subject] are [verb] why many people use the train [rest of the sentence – life is too short to break this down grammatically].  If you look at the second half of my sentence here, you might see that, again, it doesn’t sound very academic. The focus is on the verb and I use ‘people’ again. Instead of saying ‘why’, I could use ‘reasons’ and ‘people use the train’ this idea is the same as ‘travel’.  This gives me: ‘Short and middle-distance commuter journeys are the main reason for travel.’ However, on re-reading it, I realise that I could be more focussed on the task question and  make my object a little more specific.  Short and middle-distance commuter journeys [subject] are [verb] one of the main reasons for weekday train travel [object].  Can you see how simple the grammatical structure of this sentence is? At the same time, the sentence is focussed and specific, which is the essence of good academic writing.  If you’d like me to explore noun phrases in a bit more depth in another blog, let me know on our Facebook page and I will happily oblige. I love noun phrases and could talk about them all day long. To work on your own grasp of noun phrases, why not check out Unit 12 in Cambridge Grammar for IELTS? Sophie (*Please note that many of the exam questions start with ‘people’ or ‘many people’ because they are generally written in simple English to allow students from a variety of levels to understand the question). 

Sophie Hodgson

30 July, 2020

Using noun phrases to improve your writing

Using noun phrases to improve your writing

Have you ever wondered why academic English sounds so, well, academic? Your choice of vocabulary and linking words is certainly important, but there's another element to it that we rarely talk about, namely how we organise information within our sentences.

When I ask my students what they think, they often say that academic language is complicated and uses long sentences. It’s true that sentences tend to be longer than in everyday English, but ‘complicated’ writing is usually just bad style – and many native speakers of English are guilty of using unnecessary complexity in order to sound impressive. 

So today, I want to show you how we create more academic-sounding language without losing control of our sentences by shifting the information into a different place. The magic word is noun phrases.

In academic English we tend to put more information into our subjects and objects and verbs are slightly less important. I read somewhere that ‘is’ is the most common verb in academic writing, and I can definitely believe that’s true. So, while there are some great academic verbs for you to study, our focus is more on creating really strong and specific subjects. 

So, let’s look at some examples.

Here is a task from IELTS Academic 13 (part of our Authentic Practice Tests):

Writing Exercise from Sophie

 

As part of your answer you may write a sentence like this: 

People travel by train because they need to go to work. 

This sentence is grammatically correct, which is a great first step, but it doesn’t sound very academic, does it? Let’s ask ourselves this question: Do we really want to talk about ‘people’? The answer is ‘no’, so ‘people’ is a ‘weak’ subject* because it does not draw our reader’s attention to what matters to us. In this sentence, our real focus is ‘go to work or school’.

In academic English, we tend to present the idea that really matters, the thing we talk about in the subject (i.e. near the start of the sentence). However, ‘go to work’ cannot be a subject, because it’s a verb construction, and ‘go’ isn’t really a great word choice here. If we look again, we see that we used ‘travel’ in this sentence too, which sounds better than ‘go’. All we have to do now is to ‘disguise’ our verb to make it look like a noun (we use -ing for this) and voilá: We get ‘travelling to work …’. Now let’s run our test again: Do we really want to talk about ‘travelling to work’? Some of us are going to shout “Yes! That’s exactly what I want to talk about” whilst others are going to say, “Mmmmh… I’m not sure”. If you’re in the latter group, keep trying until you find something that works for what you are really trying to say: 

Things to think about

 

Personally, I thought the last one fitted best with what I’m trying to say, so I might create a sentence like this: 

Short and middle-distance commuter journeys [subject] are [verb] why many people use the train [rest of the sentence – life is too short to break this down grammatically]. 

If you look at the second half of my sentence here, you might see that, again, it doesn’t sound very academic. The focus is on the verb and I use ‘people’ again. Instead of saying ‘why’, I could use ‘reasons’ and ‘people use the train’ this idea is the same as ‘travel’. 

This gives me: ‘Short and middle-distance commuter journeys are the main reason for travel.’ However, on re-reading it, I realise that I could be more focussed on the task question and  make my object a little more specific. 

Short and middle-distance commuter journeys [subject] are [verb] one of the main reasons for weekday train travel [object]. 

Can you see how simple the grammatical structure of this sentence is? At the same time, the sentence is focussed and specific, which is the essence of good academic writing. 

If you’d like me to explore noun phrases in a bit more depth in another blog, let me know on our Facebook page and I will happily oblige. I love noun phrases and could talk about them all day long. To work on your own grasp of noun phrases, why not check out Unit 12 in Cambridge Grammar for IELTS?

Sophie

(*Please note that many of the exam questions start with ‘people’ or ‘many people’ because they are generally written in simple English to allow students from a variety of levels to understand the question). 

Language Activity from Sophie - Noun Phrases

Sophie Hodgson

Sophie has been supporting students on their IELTS journey since 2003 and feels privileged to have watched them succeed. While most people probably do not like taking tests, Sophie believes that preparing for the IELTS exam can be both interesting and fun. She loves language and structure and enjoys exploring both with her students to help them achieve their aims.

More about the author

filter tags

Recommended For You

card
IELTS 15 Academic

IELTS 15 Academic contains four practice tests EXACTLY like the real exam. It comes with audio scripts, answer keys and sample Writing answers. A new downloadable Resource Bank includes extra sample Writing answers, a sample Speaking test video and answer keys with additional explanations. QR codes in the book provide quick access to the audio and video content.  This book gives you an excellent opportunity to familiarise yourself with the test format and practise exam techniques using real-to-life test material written by the test makers (Cambridge Assessment English).  Also available for IELTS General Training

Skill bar

Stay up-to-date